With her whole life ahead of her, our daughter will likely forget this moment in our family’s history, but I won’t.
I am sitting at a little wooden table in the tiny log cabin that is ours for the night here on a faraway coast in Iceland. The rain is coming down in sheets, blown diagonally by huge gusts of wind over an endless stretch of bright green fields. In the distance, I see towering black mountains made of lava, all laced in a thick, swirling white fog.
All week, we’ve been awed by the monumental scale of this massive, wild landscape, and the tiny presence of man. A fence here, a few sheep there. Little white farmhouses dotting the distance. Every restaurant, every hotel, every car, every person walking is a speck in the expanse of fields, mountains, miles of crashing ocean surf.
In our little cabin, everyone’s still asleep. It’s just me, the roaring sound of the rain, and the incredible sensation, every few minutes, of the cabin being shaken by the wind. That, and the haunted, surreal thought that this amazing, alternate universe will very soon end, giving way to the reality that has been moving towards us like another yawning, whirling storm.
In five days, we will travel back home to our little corner of the world in Marin County, California. And then, one day later, our daughter will begin her senior year of high school. The year that will end with her leaving home. It’s the lift-off. The beginning of the great letting go.
Along with our worldwide class of 2015-2016 Senior parents, this is an aching, bittersweet milestone in our family’s life. What lies before us is our last year together as our own, treasured, lovingly, painstakingly-built civilization of four.
How can we protect ourselves from giving it away to the stress and anxiety of the classic Senior Year? How can we not give it away to the grinding wheels of the college process machine?
Traveling is a great teacher, and being in this extraordinary place has helped crystallize some lessons I hope to use to frame the coming year. Maybe they can help you, too.
Designing and claiming time. We’ve always spent most of our vacations with our extended families, whom we love dearly. But this week has shown us the deep power and importance of spending time alone, as well as the treasure of discovering a new world together. What a novel and bonding experience it has been, to follow the itinerary in our little black book, each day a new adventure and shared experience. We hiked inside an extinct volcano one day, snorkeled in icy arctic waters the next. (and by the way, never again!) We became an island unto ourselves. Just us in our rented station wagon, stuffed with our small assortment of belongings, our sole focus nothing more than living through the experience of each day.
Only now do I fully recognize the subconscious wisdom of our choice to take a trip like this, knowing that family vacations like this, just the four of us, are numbered.
We can’t change that, but we can commit, as a family, to making time for just the four of us in ways large and small. Understanding in a new way how precious and finite this time together is, we can commit to not letting weekends disappear into homework and technology and obligatory plans. We can commit to designing more time to feeding the soul of our family.
Learning from our friends. Periodically on this trip, I’ve gone on Facebook and seen the posts rolling in from friends whose kids are leaving to college. “Is this really happening?” one friend says, a picture of her daughter next to a trunk load of bags. Then, just a few days later, a picture of her daughter waving goodbye, “Oh my God. It really is happening.”
I look at these friends’ posts and I am in awe. They’re doing it. They’re really doing it. I have no idea how, but I know that part of my job is to learn from and with them, learn from all the blogs and networks and resources I can find, how best to walk this road, so that my work does not become my children’s burden.
Cementing the blueprint of sister and brother. One of the greatest joys of this week has been to witness the uniqueness and potential of the sibling relationship, and the importance of feeding it with dedicated time. Without the distraction of school, friends or technology, our daughter and son connected in a way that they rarely have the chance to do. They laughed and played and deepened their bond through the simple act of sharing time and space and all the simple pleasures of a road trip in a new land.
I say it to my kids all the time, but I’ll make sure that I find ways to slip it in again and again this year:
There is nothing, nothing like the relationship you will have with your sibling. Your brother, your sister, is the one person with whom you’ve shared your childhood. They are your witness. They are your family memory. They can be your lifelong partner in a way no one else ever can be.
After a lifetime of us trying to nurture your relationship to one another, now it’s in your hands. Make it your business to become connected this year on a new, independent level. Make time for outings just the two of you, even if it’s just doing errands, taking the dog for a walk. Be radical. Instead of going out to dinner with friends, go out to dinner with each other.
The point is, spend time without us parents. Get used to what it feels like to be alone together, so that when you leave home, it will be natural for your relationship to continue to grow independently. Cementing the blueprint for connection this year will help you make the transition to what your relationship will become when you’re not living in the same house.
I still remember how special it was to visit my own brother at college. It was weird and magical, to spend time together in a new place, alone without our parents. Suddenly, the stakes were higher; no one was making us do this. Thirty years later, my brother continues to be my soul mate. It never could have happened had we not cemented our relationship that year before he left home.
Choosing our reality and questioning it. I sit in this tiny cabin and I think: this country of Iceland exists at the exact same moment as ours in Marin County, California. How can that be?
Out here, we are four tiny beings in our little car hurtling through a massive landscape, in touch in the most elemental way with how huge the world is. Traveling through the cities and villages of this country is a reminder that there are so many realities, so many lenses through which to live one’s life. And that ours back home is just one.
How different would this next year in our lives be, were we to live here in Iceland, where there are 156 words in the Icelandic language that express different kinds of winds? Different kinds of winds! This is what families here in Iceland will think most about this year: wind, rain, snow, volcanoes, sheep, fishing, farming the land and the seas.
This is what families at home will think about most this year: SAT scores, college counselors, “the fit,” the odds, the rankings, the awards, the resumes, getting into the school of choice.
What if we decided to up and move to Iceland? We won’t, but we could. And the mental exercise is worth following. Because if we did, we’d suddenly be instantly cut free from the chains of our particular reality and put into the hands of this one.
Let’s remind ourselves again and again that we all choose the landscape of our lives and what matters.
Resisting the machine by realizing that it is a machine
Last night, from the back seat of the car, my daughter handed me her iPhone. “What do you think?” she asked me, and she seemed in that moment almost a little shy. I looked down to see a tiny little list. It was her final list of colleges that she wants to apply to, a distillation of months of research and conversations.
What did I think?
What I think is how funny it is to see this list, and to imagine that one of these little words on a screen will be a staggering, life-changing data point in her life and ours. That each school represents a wholly different set of circumstances, people to meet, stories that will become her life.
And what I know is this. Wherever our daughter ends up getting accepted, and wherever she chooses to go, will be the right place. And if it’s not the right place, she will find a better place.
The biggest mistake we could all make this year would be to give it up to society’s machine. The machine that is fueled by the illusion that a kid’s identity and/or future is defined by test scores, grades, rejections or acceptances.
In the end, the biggest mistake we Senior parents could make is to sanction the sacrifice of this precious, finite time to the grasping notion that there are a certain very few number of right places for our kids to go to college, and that we have no choice but to be all-consumed with getting them there.
So this is what I’m going to tell our daughter next week, before she gets in her car and drives off to school: This is it, Baby. Your Senior Year. You only get it once – all the fun, all the possibility, all the excitement, all the well-deserved rewards. And as a family, we only get this last year together once, too. So let’s not be slaves to the machine. Let’s choose what matters and savor this time. And let’s try to remember that even though it might look like a finish line, it’s not. It’s just a drive through this part of the landscape of our lives. Together, we can make it great. You’ve earned your license. You’re in the driver’s seat. And we’re right behind you.
(From Skaftafell, Iceland)
Julie Fingersh is a writer, strategic marketing consultant and writing coach for teens navigating the college application process. Formerly a staff writer at Business Week and Billboard Magazines in New York City, she went on to become the founding executive director of Boston Cares, which recently celebrated its 24-year anniversary as a nationally recognized model for building innovative community and corporate partnerships. Julie holds a B.A. in English literature from Swarthmore College and University of Michigan and lives with her family in Marin County, California. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post.